When I was 10 I
asked my mother to buy me two record albums for my
birthday. Two movie musical soundtracks (first clue). One
was for the Oscar-winning Oliver!--a
respectable enough choice, even today. The other was
for the low-budget kids' film Pufnstuf, the
big-screen version of a cheesy Saturday morning
television show about a boy named Jimmy who is marooned
on a magic island where a bumbling witch wants to get her
hands on his golden flute.
Pufnstuf starred British teen heartthrob Jack
Wild, who was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! "I
kind of like him," I remember telling my mother while
we were shopping at the Meijer Thrifty Acres in Grand
Rapids, Mich., circa 1970.
It felt weird to say that out loud, although I
didn't know why it should.
I got the records, which I added to the
Partridge Family and Donny Osmond albums I already had
(second clue). I played the Pufnstuf soundtrack
repeatedly and sang along to Mama Cass's song
"Different": "Different is hard,
different is lonely / Different is trouble for you
only / Different is heartache, different is pain / But
I'd rather be different than be the same."
Mama Cass was singing about being an overweight
witch. It didn't occur to me until years later
that the song had a rather glaring gay subtext.
It also didn't occur to me--nor, I
suspect, to my mother--that my attraction to
that "older man," Jack Wild, had anything to
do with my future sexual identity. Digging Jack was a
compelling orientation for my 10-year-old self, but it
wasn't sexual. I didn't want to touch his
flute or sneak kisses behind Pufnstuf's pad or
settle down and adopt baby dragons together. I just
wanted to be his best friend. ("A Friend in
You" was another track on the Pufnstuf album.)
By the time hormones hit, I'd put away
Jack, Donny, and Keith Partridge in favor of Alice
Cooper, David Bowie, and Elton John (third clue). When
I developed a secret crush on a blond diver who rode the
same bus to high school that I did, I finally got to
thinking about something other than just being best friends.
Most gay and lesbian adults have stories like
this--clues to future sexuality that often have
nothing to do with sex. Photographer Robert
Trachtenberg has even compiled many of them in a highly
entertaining new book called When I Knew
(featured in our May 24 issue). To us, these tales are
proof enough that being gay is not a choice, that
it's integral to our psychology and biology.
They are not scientific proof, however.
That's more complicated, and it's a
quest to which many great minds are dedicating years of
research, as this issue's cover story reports.
As that story and our own personal stories show,
sexuality is interwoven with so many aspects of our
selves--including, apparently, our sense of
smell--that it's unlikely to be attributable to
any single gene or formative moment. And that's
a good thing. Because while the discovery of genetic
links to sexual identity may give us an "I told you
so" satisfaction and perhaps a political too in
fighting for equality, it should never supplant the
joyful image of a little boy singing "I'd
rather be different" along with Mama Cass.